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I, Lawyer: Is Artificial Intelligence the Attorney of the Future?

It’s no secret that technology is advancing rapidly. Driverless cars have already hit the roads, drones are flying across the sky, and if the latest cell phone isn’t in your pocket right now, it’s probably on your wrist. This era of technological innovation has prompted the rise of artificial intelligence (“AI”), paving the way for computers and robots to complete work that formerly was only capable of being performed by humans. Could law firms be AI’s next target?

This question was sparked in 2015, when the law firm Dentons created Nextlaw Labs, an independent subsidiary aimed at automating some of what lawyers do.1 The creation of Nextlaw Labs was followed by the inception of the start-up Ross Intelligence, which takes advantage of IBM’s Watson supercomputer technology.2 Ross is now being utilized by some of the world’s largest law firms, including Latham & Watkins, Bryan Cave, K&L Gates, and many others.3 Technology like that created by Ross is primarily addressed at automating some of the more rote tasks, such as reviewing and organizing documents, conducting legal research, and proofreading contracts and other legal documents.4

Though law firms may have numerous incentives to adopt AI technology in their practices, the primary benefit of AI is that computers can handle certain tasks much more efficiently than humans can, meaning work is completed more quickly, costs are driven down, and clients stay happy.5 Firms have seen recent trends of clients pushing back on paying attorneys high fees to handle less sophisticated tasks.6 Technology that automates those tasks frees up lawyers to work on higher-level, intellectually satisfying projects for which clients are more willing to pay top-dollar.7 This efficiency boost is potentially tremendous. For example, JP Morgan recently created software that can interpret commercial loan agreements in seconds, a job that previously took lawyers 360,000 hours a year to complete.8 Another incentive for the adoption of AI is simple business necessity; as competition continues to rise in the legal market, law firms are under increasing pressure to invest in innovation to stay ahead of the pack.9.

In some ways, the legal industry was ripe for this innovative boom. According to Dan Jensen, CEO of Nextlaw Labs, the legal industry currently spends less than 1% of its revenue on research and development, compared to an average of 3.5% for other U.S. businesses.10 Some industries that are traditionally viewed as more innovative spend far more than this average; for example, the telecommunications industry spends about 13% of revenue on R&D, and the biotech industry invests even more.11 Given how little the legal industry currently spends on developing new technology, Jensen notes that AI companies “can have a real impact in the industry with modest spending given where the legal tech sector is at. It’s an opportunity that is fairly unique.”12

Whether law firms like it or not, there seems to be no stopping this trend. A research firm has estimated that since 2012, more than 280 legal tech start-ups have raised roughly $757 million in pursuit of a more automated future.13 Given this momentum, it’s not a surprise that at least a few law firms have joined the wave. John Fernandez, Chief Innovation Officer of Dentons, said, “Our industry is being disrupted, and we should do some of that ourselves, not just be a victim of it.”14 Indeed, some firms are now spending more than ever before on developing technology.15

The rise of AI hasn’t come without its concerns, however. Because of the uncertainty surrounding how AI will impact law firms, many lawyers have begun wondering if they will soon be replaced by robots. Such is the goal of at least a few tech companies, such as the recent start-up Atrium.16 Atrium, which is actually incorporated as a law firm, was created by Justin Kan, the same person who built the video game streaming service Twitch, which he sold to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars in 2014.17 Kan’s goal with Atrium is to create a law firm of a select few tech-savvy lawyers who can offer efficient services to clients for a single, transparent bill.18 Eventually, the idea is to have the technology fully take over.19

This goal may not be entirely far-fetched. In October, more than one hundred partners and associates at law firms like Allen & Overy and DLA Piper were beaten by AI software in a competition to predict the outcome of about 800 historic insurance law cases.20 The AI predicted the outcome of the cases with 87% accuracy, compared to only 62% from the human lawyers.21

Despite this outcome, however, most experts say that lawyers aren’t at risk of losing their jobs, at least, not yet. Indeed, while AI might be able to quickly handle menial tasks right now, other tasks, such as advising clients, writing briefs, negotiating deals, and appearing in court seem to be out of the reach of automation for at least the foreseeable future.22 AI software also cannot sympathize with clients or build attorney-client relationships like real people can, which is an essential aspect of the legal profession.23 In fact, some people think that by freeing up lawyers to handle more interesting work, AI will actually have a positive net effect on lawyers, and it will give clients a reliable way to get answers to simple questions without taking up attorneys’ time.24 Indeed, Ross Intelligence’s Co-Founder, Andrew Arruda, has stated that their software is meant to enhance lawyers, not to replace them.25

The most likely impact of AI on lawyers, at least as the technology exists today, is that lawyers will see their responsibilities shift. A McKinley Global Institute study has estimated that 23% of a lawyer’s job could be automated, which could free up 23% more time for lawyers to perform legal work that cannot currently be automated26 Additionally, headcounts of each team within a firm are likely to shrink as each lawyer becomes more efficient by utilizing AI. Further, according to Michael Mills, a lawyer and Chief Strategy Officer of the legal tech start-up Neota Logic, these projects might soon be handled by teams where “more than one of the players will be a machine.”27

At the end of the day, nobody is entirely sure what the future will hold for AI technology or the law firms that use it. The only certainty is that the technology is changing, and law firms will have to change along with it.


  1. See Julie Sobowale, How artificial intelligence is transforming the legal profession, ABA Journal, (Apr. 2016) http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/how_artificial_intelligence_is_transforming_the_legal_profession

  2. Id. 

  3. See Ross Intelligence, http://www.rossintelligence.com (last visited Nov. 9, 2017). 

  4. See Avaneesh Marwaha, Seven Benefits of Artificial Intelligence For Law Firms, Law Tech. Today (July 13, 2017), http://www.lawtechnologytoday.org/2017/07/seven-benefits-artificial-intelligence-law-firms/

  5. See Sobowale, supra note 1. 

  6. Sobowale, supra note 1. 

  7. Sobowale, supra note 1. 

  8. Hugh Son, JPMorgan Software Does in Seconds What Took Lawyers 360,000 Hours, Bloomberg Mkts. (Feb. 28, 2017, 7:24 AM), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-28/jpmorgan-marshals-an-army-of-developers-to-automate-high-finance

  9. See Sobowale, supra note 1. 

  10. Sobowale, supra note 1. 

  11. Sobowale, supra note 1. 

  12. Sobowale, supra note 1. 

  13. Steve Lohr, A.I. Is Doing Legal Work. But It Won’t Replace Lawyers, Yet., N.Y. Times (Mar. 19, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/19/technology/lawyers-artificial-intelligence.html

  14. Id. 

  15. See Artificial intelligence and lawyers, Chambers Assoc., http://www.chambers-associate.com/practice-areas/technology-and-telecoms/artificial-intelligence-and-lawyers (last visited Nov. 9, 2017). 

  16. See Elizabeth Dwoskin, This Silicon Valley start-up wants to replace lawyers with robots, Wash. Post (Sept. 14, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2017/09/14/this-silicon-valley-startup-wants-to-replace-lawyers-with-robots/?utm_term=.83bb9b5c4f22

  17. Id. 

  18. Id. 

  19. See id. 

  20. Chris Johnson, Artificial Intelligence Beats Big Law Partners in Legal Matchup, Am. Lawyer (Oct. 31, 2017), https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/sites/americanlawyer/2017/10/31/artificial-intelligence-beats-big-law-partners-in-legal-matchup/

  21. Id. 

  22. Lohr, supra note 13. 

  23. See Chambers Assoc., supra note 15. 

  24. See Chambers Assoc., supra note 15. 

  25. Chambers Assoc., supra note 15. 

  26. Lohr, supra note 13. 

  27. Lohr, supra note 13. 

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Marques Winick